It has been quite a few months for Gertrude Stein. Since Kathy Bates’ appearance as her in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Dalkey Archive Press has experienced record sales of Stein’s “The Making of Americans,” a 925-page behemoth. The Seeing Gertrude Stein Exhibit has been in San Francisco and Washington DC and on Feb. 28th The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde opens at the Met in NYC. Now Yale University Press has just released Ida: A Novel and Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition. The history of the latter is fascinating:
…scholars have discovered that Stein’s poem exists in several versions: a manuscript that Stein wrote and two typescripts that her partner Alice B. Toklas prepared. Toklas’s work on the second typescript changed the poem when, enraged upon detecting in it references to a former lover, she not only adjusted the typescript but insisted that Stein make revisions in the original manuscript.
Stein’s early relationship with May Bookstaver was never revealed to Toklas by Stein, but she did find out. The word “may” recurs often throughout the Stanzas as both a noun and verb. Toklas changed all that. From Stanza VI in Part One–the genesis of line 25:
All may be glory may be may be glory
All may can be glory can be can be glory
All can be glory can be can be glory
The book painstakingly details all the edits and there are many. This edition also includes incredible prefatory essays by Joan Retallack and Donald Sutherland–as well as John Ashbery’s 1956 review of the first Stanzas.
The poem as it now reads is at once stunning, difficult, and sonorous. An example from Part Two:
It is not only early that they make no mistake
A nightingale and a robin.
Or rather that which may which
May which he which they may choose which
They knew or not like that
They make this be once or not alike
Not by this time only when they like
To have been very much absorbed.
And so they find it so
And so they are
There which is not only here but there as well as there.
They like whatever I like.
Stein is both plangent and playful. She is looking back (it was written a year before The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) at her life and summoning words and phrasings that may be accidental but have a soundsphere that is stark: “may which” = “may witch”? The menacing “they” occurs all throughout the poem. The stanza above puts me in the mind of the moody, fussy relationships we try to make work–“They like whatever I like,” being the final cross through the heart.
These meditations are personal, yet universal. Now they can be enjoyed the way Stein wrote them.